Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Ted and Helen

Ted and Helen, who are in their late 50s, came to Cambodia thirteen years ago and run a restaurant and bar in the upmarket NGO area of Boeung Keng Kang 1 (commonly referred to as BKK1). Helen said: ‘We were lucky in terms of the period we were here—2000 to now. It is a long time and we have seen a lot of changes, particularly in the last five years. Big corporations coming in, more wealth. Between 2000 and 2004 it didn’t change that much. The heart of the city didn’t change.’

But Helen added that, sadly, a lot of the ‘soul of the city and the edginess has gone’.

Safety was an issue back then, although Helen is very nonchalant about this. ‘It was still safe then because you didn’t go where the problems were—you would get a text message that there had been a hand grenade thrown here or a shooting there and you would not go to that area. But all of that has gone now except for the army commanders shooting in karaoke bars.

‘What has changed is that it is a lot more modern, cleaner, more accessible, safer. There is a lot of investment in the city. The landscape has changed dramatically. The division of the rich and the poor is getting bigger. But the middle class is growing.’

As always there is a dark side to development. ‘When we first came here the French architecture was extraordinary but rundown—now a lot of the major buildings have been destroyed.’

Helen added that there is a drift to the city with people looking for work, and many have lost their land as corrupt government bodies sell it off. A land grab has been underway. Logging has also contributed to dispossession, as well as environmental degradation.

‘You get really angry about it. You get angry about sex-trafficking and the amount of rape in this country. We don’t have any rights, no one has any rights,’ said Helen of the dark side that continues to underlie exotic Cambodia.

Royal Palace Phnom Penh

Royal Palace Phnom Penh

The contrast between good and evil is still very apparent. Just like the Tonlé Sap River can flow backwards and, yes, uphill, when the Mekong River floods, so too can time flow backwards in Cambodia; backwards to the darkness of the 1970s and 1980s. The streets in Phnom Penh are grubby. This makes it a tough place for the unadventurous, especially a retired couple who are used to suburbia in north Melbourne or western Sydney.

 ‘It is dirty here,’ said Ted. ‘There is a lot of garbage because of the massive influx of population. It is no one’s place and there is no education.’ There are other challenges as well and sex tourism is way up the top of the list. It’s a big industry in Cambodia and, in the bars along the river where the tourists drink and eat and party, it’s obvious.

When you’ve lived somewhere like Cambodia as long as Helen, your daily experiences colour your opinion—and Helen does not think the country is suitable for couples. In her frank and open manner, she explained: ‘Ninety per cent of the time the male will get “rice fever”. Guaranteed. Six of my girlfriends have left this year—all turned 40, single. They left for two reasons—their careers and no blokes. It is a really lonely place for foreign females.

‘And Cambodia can be difficult to adjust to. It is not like moving to Chiang Mai or Bangkok. There is too much going out to bars and getting drunk is so easy. Alcohol consumption is way too high. ‘It amazes me how stupid white men are—you see it so much here. A friend of ours here is 56 and recently got married to an eighteen-year-old woman.

‘After thirteen years I still find it incredible that single males come here—and a lot of the reason they are attracted to a place like Cambodia is that they can’t have a relationship in their own country and they can’t handle the stress and the restrictions of their own country. So they come here and they go with taxi girls, don’t use condoms, the girl gets pregnant and the bloke says, “Oh woe is me.”

‘They don’t think about HIV, let alone any other sexually transmitted diseases, and then they get a girl pregnant and go “woe is me”? I have no time for those people any more. They end up doing it two or three times. And remember the whole Asian package—you don’t marry the girl, you marry the family and the village, too.’

Even so, Helen sees a change in trend with more couples appearing recently. ‘We have met a lot of couples in the last year, mostly Americans, who often work from home, travelling through Southeast Asia to find a place to live. They want a new lifestyle.’

Ted added, however, that a lot of them end up choosing Thailand or Malaysia over Cambodia. ‘You have to be a certain character to get on in Cambodia,’ he said. ‘It is edgy for people who haven’t been in Asia before.’

Still, it is an increasingly popular location for expats, both singles and couples. Helen said: ‘Almost everybody who comes here wants to stay and they come back. All the time we meet people who say, “I was here five years ago. I always wanted to come back.” Or people here for the first time saying, “Oh, I had no idea it would be so nice.”